Spacing the Floor | Pt. I: How Buddy Hield has the Kings shooting for respectability
NEW YORK — Victor Oladipo knew it was coming, the query about why his Indiana Pacers don’t garner more attention in the top-heavy Eastern Conference.
He seemed to playfully roll his eyes before giving a stock answer, one he appears to have remembered chapter and verse every time the small-town Pacers visit the big city. After a win against the rebuilding New York Knicks earlier this month, the Pacers stood third in the East, looking down on the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We know we’re not a major market and we know that it’s not the greatest thing to talk about us, I guess you can say. It’s fine with us. We’ll just continue to earn people’s respect. Eventually they’ll wake up.”
Everyone seemed to notice last spring when they gave LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers a real run in the first round, a contentious seven-game series that bordered on the same level of competitiveness as the Cavaliers’ East final with the Boston Celtics.
The Celtics, rightfully so, were lauded and anointed as the team ready to take the next step. The Pacers were essentially given the “good job, good effort” pat on the back and largely forgotten when talk of conference contenders came up.
It made sense on a level, and many still have a hard time embracing a team whose point differential (5.9) is better than the 76ers (3.8) and Raptors (5.8), while being a shade behind the Celtics (6.2).
Oladipo has come back down to earth a bit after his Most Improved Player campaign a year ago, but he still should be an All-Star next month, averaging 19.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists this season. And the Pacers made no big acquisitions over the summer, save for swapping out Lance Stephenson for Tyreke Evans as a spark-plug big guard off the bench.
But that’s where the beauty of this team starts to form, because the chemistry issues that have dogged the 76ers and Celtics to this point haven’t been a problem at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Pacers’ continuity has carried them to consistent performances nightly, and while their elevator may not reach the penthouse the way the 76ers’ and Celtics’ does, the nights in which they’re at the floor are few and far between.
“We looked at developing a group and developing them into what they could become,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan told Yahoo Sports. “Even though we’ve had a lot of the same players, this team is starting to establish itself. That’s what you look at, not what you did last year.”
While center Myles Turner hasn’t made the offensive jump his talent suggests was coming, he’s so valuable on the defensive end that you can’t be disappointed as he leads the league in blocks. And he’s shooting a career-high 39.8 percent from 3-point range.
Domantas Sabonis has made incremental strides off the bench in Year 3, averaging 15 points and 9.6 rebounds in just 25.3 minutes per night with a staggering offensive rating of 123 points per 100 possessions. It’s going to be hard to keep him off the floor come playoff time if McMillan unleashes him fully.
With all that, the Pacers have been able to withstand any absences from Oladipo this season. After going 0-7 without Oladipo last year, critical games that essentially cost them home-court advantage, they’ve gone 7-2 this season in his absence, thrashing the likes of Utah (by 33 and 27) and Orlando (by 22).
“This year we were able to win some games,” McMillan said. “It shows we added some players and our guys have showed some growth, playing better basketball. When a guy goes down, it’s an opportunity for someone else. … We knew we hadn’t won a game without him [last season] and our guys wanted to prove and play together.”
Then there’s McMillan, the purposely understated coach who chooses his words very carefully but always strives for clarity.
He garnered some NBA Coach of the Year votes last season (including a first-place nod from this voter) and has this bunch playing with confidence again. Not known as a master tactician, it’s easy to forget he coached the Seattle SuperSonics from 2001-05 that would’ve fit in this run-and-gun era. He had Ray Allen and a young Rashard Lewis as his main cogs and let them do what they did best: shoot and shoot often.
He has the same philosophy with the Pacers, adjusting to his personnel and maximizing their skills. And as simple as it sounds, it’s not always easy to employ or embrace.
“Coach [Gregg] Popovich has been a guy a lot of people have looked to. [The Spurs] used to play up and down, shoot a lot of threes,” McMillan said. “Then they go and get two of the biggest midrange guys in the game [DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge] and he’s adapted.
“That’s what I do. I look at my roster, my team and try to put those guys in position to play their best basketball. Of course, if you can run and get up and down the floor with speed, you do that. But if not, you try to take advantage of your guys.”
And even though Oladipo tires a bit of the small-market narrative, he’s not afraid of anybody in a seven-game set.
“We’re definitely confident. We’re confident. We’re confident for sure,” he told Yahoo Sports recently. “I think we’re definitely better [than last season], we’re deeper. Our best basketball is ahead of us. We have to embrace it.”
Talking the talk
“He’s put so much time and effort into this game that he should be able to hoop and still have fun playing the game of basketball.”
— James Harden, clearly in Carmelo Anthony’s corner after Anthony was sent to Chicago (where he won’t play a game and will likely be released).
It’s clear Anthony still loves the game. But sometimes the game doesn’t always love you back.
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